For want of a better bird

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 December, 2011, 12:00am


Which category of turkey cook do you fall into? Perhaps you have been cooking the bird for years and need no advice, or perhaps you have been doing so for years and are looking for a simple twist to your classic recipe.

Or are you in a blind panic?

For the people sitting round your festive table this may be the most important meal of the year. There are expectations. What follows is a reliable guide to making a simple roast, based on personal experience.

I needed to devise this because the first year I roasted a turkey I made every one of the classic errors. I'm not sure how I managed to get the breast meat overdone and dry while the skin was barely crisp and a horrible, pale colour. The leg meat was raw and when I started carving a paper bag full of giblets fell out of the cavity.

While there is no complicated deboning and stuffing or smoking over barbecues or sous vide techniques here, there is one optional step that sounds more difficult than it actually is. What you are aiming for is a richly dark and crisp skin, evenly cooked and moist meat and a great sauce to go with it.

Remember to start defrosting your bird early enough. It can take up to three days in the fridge.

First, preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Next you need to make a great stock, and this is one day of the year when it's worth doing it yourself and not reaching for the chicken powder.

Put about 250 grams of chicken wings and the same amount of chicken feet in a litre of cold water and bring to a vigorous boil for five minutes. Drain and rinse the chicken bits then put them in a fresh litre of water with a roughly chopped onion, carrot and celery stalk and salt and pepper. Bring this to a gentle simmer and cook for at least an hour.

If you are going to use it, make a herb butter. One made with 50 grams of butter will cover a small portion of each breast, so I recommend extravagance and using 100 grams of unsalted butter, blended with a handful of herbs - rosemary, sage and tarragon work well - a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt.

Roughly chop a large onion, two stalks of celery and a large, scrapped carrot and place them in the bottom of the roasting pan, along with an unpeeled head of garlic.

Take out the bag of giblets and then season the cavity by rubbing salt and pepper around it. Now you can proceed to stuff the bird.

The following stuffing isn't going to be eaten: the aim is to create moisture to steam the bird from the inside as well as roast it from the outside. Slice a lemon in half and put it in the front cavity and secure the flap with a skewer.

Place a roughly chopped onion, a large carrot - scrapped and halved - and a handful of fresh herbs, the same sort that you have used in the butter, in the main cavity. Again skewer the flaps to secure them.

Putting the herb butter under the skin is optional, but don't be put off because it sounds complicated. Turkey skin is easily lifted away from the meat to form a pocket; it is also very thick and so quite hard to tear.

Put a tablespoon of butter under the skin of the breast and massage it further into the bird; repeat on each breast until the butter is used up.

The next step is to rub the outside of the bird with good olive oil, but not extra virgin. Now put the bird in the oven, with legs facing you. As there is a stuffing, cook for 30 minutes per kilogram.

In my small oven the bird takes up all the space. I'm not sure why, but this also seems to help iron out the differences in time taken for breasts and legs to cook. You may not be so lucky. In that case, drape a sheet of aluminium foil over the breasts for the first three-quarters of the cooking time to slow down the rate at which they cook.

Test that the bird is ready: if you have a meat thermometer check that the internal temperature of the meat is 180 degrees. If not, pierce the thickest part of the thigh with a fork to see if the juices run clear.

Take the turkey out of the oven and with a clean cloth lift the bird up and put onto a plate. Lightly drape it with foil while you make the sauce.

Sacrifice a glass of good wine to the sauce by pouring it into the roasting tray and scraping up any interesting bits from the bottom of the pan. Then use a potato masher to squash all the vegetables and garlic.

Next fry the chopped giblets, minus the liver, in olive oil. Pour the contents of the roasting pan through a sieve onto the giblets.

Add the stock that you had made earlier, again through a sieve. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer and reduce for 20 minutes while the turkey rests. If you are partial to liver, add it to the sauce five minutes before serving.